'A Living Death': Thousands Serving Life in Prison for Nonviolent Offenses

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Common Dreams

'A Living Death': Thousands Serving Life in Prison for Nonviolent Offenses

ACLU report finds troubling racial trends for those locked up under mandatory minimum laws

by
Sarah Lazare, staff writer

At least 3,278 people in the United States, a majority of them black, are serving life in prison for nonviolent convictions in a system where mandatory minimum laws and racial disparities shape sentencing, a report released Wednesday by the ACLU reveals.

Entitled A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses, the study draws on interviews and surveys of hundreds of inmates, as well as court records and data from the state obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, to paint a chilling picture of lives behind bars.

What are these offenses?

They could be as little as stealing a $159 jacket or selling $10 worth of marijuana, the report finds. Of the 3,278 cases reviewed for the study, 79% were convicted of nonviolent, drug-related crimes and 20% of nonviolent property crimes like theft. Most were handed mandatory minimums under "habitual offender" laws that require them to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

Severe racial disparities are reflected in these numbers. Of cases reviewed, 65 percent are black, 18 percent are white, and 16 percent are latino. In Louisiana, a stunning 91 percent of inmates serving life for a nonviolent offense are black.

This is despite evidence that white people are just as likely, if not more likely, than black people to use drugs.

Who are the people behind these numbers?

Teresa Griffin was 26 years old when she was charged with transporting drugs for her then-boyfriend who she says was abusive and forced her to serve as a mule.

Anthony Jackson was 44 years old and working as a cook when he was convicted of burglary for stealing a wallet from a hotel room. Jackson says that his court-appointed defender did not adequately prepare the case, so he represented himself, even though he did not understand the charges against him. Two former burglary convictions were enough to land him behind bars for life. "I felt hurt and afraid [of] the ending of life," Jackson told the ACLU.

Dicky Joe Jackson, serving life in prison for a nonviolent offense, said, “I would rather have had a death sentence than a life sentence.”

“We must change the laws that have led to such unconscionable sentences,” said Jennifer Turner, ACLU Human Rights Researcher and author of the report. “For those now serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses, President Obama and state governors must step in and reduce their sentences."

"To do nothing is a failure of justice.”

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